Category Archives: Gender & Sexuality

Where are the SL men?

A Study of Gender Presentation in Resident Profiles in Second Life Public Spaces

When I returned to SL a couple months ago, I noticed that there seemed to be a lower percentage of apparently male avatars than I remembered from 2010-2015. I wondered if my chosen destinations were female-leaning, so I began jumping to areas that were not personally interesting. The imbalance was there too. Having an anthropology background, it was time to get more methodological.


In counting 1068 avatars across 58 destinations in SL, I observed 50% female avatars, 27% male avatars, and 23% avatars that were not binary or were of unknown gender. In fact, the majority (86%) of venues had male avatar percentages of 0-38%. 7 locations were between 50-58% male, and one outlier (Star Wars Legends roleplay) was 90% male when I visited. The quantity of male avatars was significant at some places — there were 18 male avatars at a ballroom I visited — but they still only constituted 31% of the crowd. Of binary, clearly gendered avatars I observed, 35% were male and 65% were female.


I visited 58 destinations: 9 General, 30 Moderate, and 19 Adult.

I tried to minimize my bias by choosing locations to count in a variety of ways. Venues directed specifically at one gender, such as single-sex clothing stores or gay/lesbian clubs, were not visited. Locations were found by selecting from the SL website destination guide, links in group notices, event and destination listings, keyword searches (airport, beach, Brazil, chat, city, combat, Deutsch, family, furry, sandbox, and Turkey), looking for avatar clusters on the map, and suggestions from friends. I sought places with varied activities and audiences, most of which I had never visited before. A region had to have a minimum of four avatars present to be included.

Crowd at live show

Because of my availability, most places were visited between 4:00-9:00 PM SLT (Standard Linden Time, which is US Pacific time). However, I did get to 11 venues between 8:00 AM and 1:30 PM.

The sex of an avatar was determined by resident profile presentation (more on this in the Discussion section below). To gather profiles for this study, I visited an area, popped open the Nearby list, and opened the profiles of everyone there. I then sorted the profiles on my screen into three piles — obviously male, obviously female, and undetermined. Profiles in the undetermined pile would get more scrutiny and then I would log a final count. I did not consider avatars that arrived or left after my sorting began.


As I explored, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. I’d rez into a location, look around, and think, “Wow, there are a lot of men here!” Then I’d count and find that female avatars outnumbered male 2:1. Since I tend to seek the companionship of men, my perception was off. On the other hand, I spoke with a number of male residents who didn’t notice that the balance was so tilted either.

Determining the sex of an avatar was somewhat complex. In the era of mesh bodies and heads, binary gender presentation has become more extreme, which meant that the resident’s main profile photo was my first sorting clue. Most of the female human avatars I counted were blatantly gendered: full breasts and hips, narrow waists, makeup, long hair. Many of the male human avatars had facial hair and broad muscular shoulders.

Display names were only considered if they had a gendered title that cleared up other ambiguity. For example, it was not uncommon to see profile photos that featured a couple. That image plus “Mrs. Jane Doe” meant that I’d count the avatar as female. I often combed through text to find gendered self-references, such as “I’m a sweet country gal”. Sometimes a partner provided a useful clue. No assumptions were made around sexual orientation, but I’d visit the partner’s profile to see if there were gendered references to the avatar I was counting. “I love X, he’s my knight in mesh armor!” and that sort of thing.

I encountered several residents who described themselves as shape-shifting, androgynous, non-binary, or explicitly said that they may sometimes appear male and sometimes female. I’m not familiar with the furry subculture and was relieved to see that many gave clear indications of gender in their text sections. However, most of the avatars I counted as neither/undetermined had nearly empty profiles and in fact, I think most were bots or NPCs in roleplaying areas. An avatar named GangMember but with a blank profile was logged as undetermined. In a longer study I would try to parse out the active residents from the rest, but it is fair to say that the number of avatars listed as neither male nor female is strongly inflated by bots.

That said, my categorization of an avatar as male, female, or neither/undetermined was subjective and I’d consider other methods if this was research with a goal of publication. I used profiles rather than visual inspection because of the ease of changing avatars for effect, a joke, an event, a mood shift, or a particular venue. Relying on interviews would have made the effort much greater and would have introduced another type of selection bias.


Counting at Prehistorica in my pteranodon avi

Destinations where I found the highest percentage of male avatars were:

  • Star Wars Legends (roleplay, M)
  • Yiff (furry, A)
  • Santa Ramona Valley (roleplay, A)
  • Maui Swingers Resort (sex, A)
  • Prehistorica (dinosaurs/infohub, M)
  • 2Raw Extreme (racing, M)
  • The Looking Glass (hangout, M)

I can only speculate why the numbers are skewed like this. It may be that nowadays, SL has more activities that appeal to people who present as female online. My husband’s suggestion that it’s easier to have a nice-looking female avatar may be a factor. There may be plenty of male avatars in SL but they prefer same-sex venues to the open areas I explored. People who had male avatars may have moved off to other virtual worlds, games, or virtual reality. People may have selected female avatars to try to ply their wares in the digital sex trade (though I see an absence of clients across the grid). It could also be that the avatar gender balance has always been disproportionate, but it wasn’t apparent enough to raise my curiosity.

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Posted by on February 15, 2019 in Embodied Experience, Gender & Sexuality, Research


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AFK sex, the popularity paradox, and the lack of male avatars

Going back into Second Life after three years has given me a lot to think about. I wander looking for interesting things and people, then spend equally as much time pondering what I’ve found.

Princess and the Elephants

At Luanes Magical World in Morning Glow

I’ve started several posts but, being a methodical person, I keep stopping and asking myself more questions. Could this be the result of selection bias? What is really going on? How do others react to this? So, I thought I’d share what I’m working on. If you have any people I should speak with or things I should read to get more perspective, please pass those along to Kay Jiersen (in SL) or kayjiersen at gmail.

Where are the men?

My observation after exploring a variety of SL regions that were not particularly gendered was that there are fewer avatars presenting as male than there were in the past. I don’t have historic numbers to compare against but I have started a study counting avatars in public spaces. Primarily, I’m looking at gender presentation of avatars in user profiles — not the people in RL nor their appearance at the time. There are ways I could dig deeper into this and perhaps I will, but this is a start. In my sample thus far, male avatars (of any species/type) are about 27% and avatars of undetermined gender are about 4%.

AFK sex venues

You can’t search the in-world destination guide without coming across these, because the continual presence of parked avatars drives their traffic numbers to the top of the list. For people unfamiliar with Second Life, these are relatively new areas where unattended avatars are left on furniture that has scripted sex animations, while the RL people behind them (theoretically) leave the screen and go on with their physical lives. A client avatar can join the AFK escort on the furniture and take charge of the controls. There is no personal interaction, but the visuals are the same as if there was an active human controlling the other avatar. Payment is made by tipping the escort and proceeds are automatically split with the venue. Popping into several to look around, I’ve never seen an active client (though I have seen AFK escorts being utilized at less specific venues). I’m awfully curious about these places and the avatars that use them, actively and passively.

Traffic, popularity, and concurrency

As mentioned above, having avatars at a venue all the time will raise its position in the search results. I visited a highly-ranked beach sim last week that had more than a dozen voluptuous, scantily-clad female avatars milling around the landing point and on the dance floor. They had profiles like those you’d find in any crowd, none of which said they were bots. I watched them as I explored. They went through their AO (animation override) standing motions, but none danced, walked around, or interacted. There was no local chat. So, I started running through them like the cue ball breaking the triangle on a pool table, and there was no reaction. Bots. The place looked full at first glance but felt dead.

On the same weekend, I experienced two venues that had legitimate crowds: a store that ran a 50% off everything sale and a club with live musicians. The unfortunate truth is that popularity in a virtual space presents a paradox: the performance of the region degrades as more avatars enter and interact. Concurrency is a technical challenge where improvement has been sluggish, no matter the platform. (Philip Rosedale wrote a good explanation on the High Fidelity blog in September, when they achieved 356 avatars in a single instance on that service.)

Since my technical interest is tempered by my anthropological mindset, I’m curious more about the lived experience of being alone, surrounded by bots, and in a glitchy crowd in a virtual space. That’s what I’ll explore in depth, soon.


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Does the Internet make me more girly?

This might come as a shock, but I’m not really a glamorous sort of gal. I know, I know!  Most introverted middle-aged women who blog about tech and anthropology are nearly indistinguishable from Angelina Jolie, but I guess I’m an outlier. So, I’ve been thinking about how the Internet shapes my superficial performance of femininity.

Kay avatar with hair in curlers and garish, mismatched makeup

My husband agrees when I say I kind of fail at being a girl. I’m not sure how to feel about that.


When I write about superficial gender performance, I’m thinking of public costume (fashion, makeup, hairstyles) more than the behaviors that would be included in the full definition of gender. Even limiting the topic in this way, it can be extremely divisive among women. Do we conform to societal norms of beauty or judge others who don’t? Should feminists wear makeup or dress in fashions designed to enhance sexual appeal? Do we consider issues like consumerism, environmentalism, safety, and health as part of our beauty culture? How do we address norms of feminine appearance that exclude women of color, size, or who have disabilities? The issues are far greater than whether I can wear tangerine lipstick with my complexion.

I’m female, cis female if you like, but I have always struggled with my performance of gender. Behavior aside, my self-perceived inadequacy in “looking like a pretty girl/attractive woman” has always added to the stress of my shyness. I had decent luck in the genetic lottery but I was both disinterested in my appearance and clueless about how to enhance it when I was younger. I never had a female mentor and I lived in a rural area, without cable TV or any stores where I could buy a fashion magazine. That might seem positive in some ways and I did have fewer unrealistic images to compare myself against, but it made me uncomfortable around girls and women who knew how to style their hair or apply flattering makeup.

I should pause here to say that there are countless ways to be externally feminine, and I don’t think any are innately superior, make someone a “better” woman, or necessarily reflect the inner person. Please don’t misunderstand me as saying that a proper woman is a glamazon. My personal ideal would be a polished and put-together appearance; not Kardashian-esque, but making the most of my assets. When I was growing up, I had no idea how to do that.

But now, it’s 2015! I can go to YouTube and find thousands of skincare, makeup, and hair tutorials. There are myriad beauty and fashion blogs I can consult as I try to find a personal style. I can have products delivered to my home so I don’t have to trudge through malls and department stores.

Despite that, I’m currently wearing a ripped flannel shirt, oversized hoodie, yoga pants, no makeup, and my hair is pulled into a ponytail. If I had to go to the store, I’d swipe some mascara over my lashes and replace my scrunchie with an elastic band (Carrie saying, “Friends don’t let friends wear scrunchies,” has stuck with me years after Sex and the City finished, but they’re gentle on my fine hair and I wear them at home, dammit.)

Why haven’t I honed my appearance now that information and products are at my fingertips? I think it comes down to my upbringing and dissonance between my aspirations and what I’m willing to do to reach them. Maybe it would be different if I worked outside the home, but generally, it seems like too much trouble, expense, and discomfort for my circumstances.

I suspect my virtual avatars are proxies that reduce that dissonance, too. Not only do they have idealized shapes and appearance, but I can also use them to express style I don’t have offline. Embodied in an avatar, I can change hairstyle and makeup with a few clicks and wear body conscious dresses and high heels without feeling absurd. I can be punk or pretty or elegant or athletic. If I sometimes feel like a femininity failure in the physical world, my appearance is almost too girly for my comfort online.

Truth is, the Internet has made a difference in my offline appearance. I might not wear makeup everyday but I’m more confident in my choices and technique when I do. I can easily check what’s trendy when I buy something seasonal, like nail polish. I resent that women pay more than men to meet societal norms of appearance, so it matters that I can find high quality products that flatter me online rather than buying handfuls of drugstore products that might work. That applies to clothing, too: standard sizes rarely fit me well, but I can order clothes custom-made for my figure at a factory in India (thank you, eShakti). My preference for tunics and leggings might not be high fashion but they can be neat, comfortable, and appropriate for many situations.

I’ll never be someone who spends much time on her hair or tolerates pain for fashion’s sake. I’ll probably always be envious of women who look effortlessly stylish. But, the resources available online now help me be more comfortable with my interpretation of external femininity.

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Posted by on April 8, 2015 in Gender & Sexuality


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Incidental bias is still offensive

Recently I became a volunteer tester for a new game*. In this system, the default avatar is non-human and apparently without gender. The company currently provides thirteen additional pre-built complete human avatars: seven male, six female, with some diversity of appearance. You could think of it like the array of mesh avatars for new users in Second Life:


In the other system, each avatar has a small paragraph of description and backstory. Though they aren’t intended to be roleplayed in that way, someone took the time to invent personalities and characteristics for these thirteen avatars. There are quite a few errors in spelling and grammar and the writing is terrible. The lack of quality reinforces the fact that these avatars and their descriptions are not the core business of the company. However, the content is public and directly associated with the company’s name (“created by companyname” is on each listing).

So, how does this connect to the title of this post?

First, there are some uncomfortable racial descriptions in the content. The one avatar that looks Asian is described as “cunning” — a bit close to the stereotype of the inscrutable Asian — and of course he practices martial arts. The black male avatar “has flavor”; in context this indicates he has a sense of style, but the shift of language from the other descriptions is unpleasant. It’s like describing a few white men as handsome and then the black one as fly.

Then there’s the misogyny, both blatant and subtle. When you read the description “organic, farm-raised”, do you think of chicken? Cows? No, silly! That’s a woman. None of the male characters are described in terms of family life, but the description for one female avatar strangely says that “she’d be an exceptional mother of five, still ready to bear more.” Earthy and maternal women are terrific, but descriptions that make them sound like livestock are not.

You can see more bias in the groupings below. I took the words used to describe each avatar — leaving out direct references to hobbies and professions, sticking to personality and appearance — pulled them into a list with the others, and alphabetized. I’ve altered them a little to make the lists more syntactically consistent (writing “put” as “puts”, for example), but not to change the content.

Words used in female descriptions: BFF, charming, courteous, cute, doll, down to earth, fills your heart, friendly, incredible beauty, intelligent, kind, lights up your life, lovely, (will) make you fall in love with life, organic, (has) perpetually perfect eye makeup, quirky, rare bird, shy (briefly), studious, sweet, (has) tenacity

Words used in male descriptions: all-around exceptional, always growing, biggest softy, built of steel, casual, cocky, confident, cool, cool-headed, (has) courage, ever-new, extra supportive, handsome, (has) muscle, kind (3 times), living proof (of how to get a great six-pack), looks soft, makes hard decisions fast, marvelous, masculine marvel, mean when mad, means business, (has) no time for jerking around, perfect blue eyes, puts life on the line everyday, quick-witted, respects authority, sharp, smooth talking, thoughtful, tough as nails, wavy hair, (has a) work ethic, works hard everyday

The male descriptions, while over-the-top, show some variety. The female words could be used to describe a single manic pixie dream girl. Heck, some of the descriptions aren’t even about the woman, they’re about the observer (fills your heart, lights up your life, will make you fall in love with life). I get sick of people pointing out “the male gaze”, but that’s a textbook example.

There’s an easy fix for the offensive avatar descriptions: they can be removed. If text is necessary, it would make more sense (for search purposes) to describe hair color, body type, and clothing. There really isn’t an excuse to leave them online as they are.

Look, in the grand scheme of things, these avatar descriptions aren’t a big deal. I know that. They might have been dashed off by an intern and not reviewed, but they are sloppy and insulting and bear the company’s name. The company is also focusing their priorities on users without disabilities but with significant tech budgets; they’re not specifically excluding others, but seem to consider accessibility someone else’s problem for the future. Taken together, these make the company seem privileged and arrogant, backward-thinking instead of the visionaries they want to be.

* I struggled with how to present this topic and still protect the company I’m writing about. Some of you will know immediately; please leave the name out of any comments. I have neither an obligation to them nor an ax to grind. I’d like to see them succeed, which is why I mentioned this issue in a relevant thread on their forums and allowed a day for the descriptions to be cleaned up before I blogged. They have not been, as of now.

So, I’ve changed a few details about the company and product, but not about the problematic content. I could have skipped this topic altogether, but I think that with all the discussions around misogyny in the tech industry, it’s valid to call out examples like this and it’s important to talk about them.


Posted by on April 3, 2015 in Gender & Sexuality, Side Topics


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One Billion Rising 2015 – call for SL volunteers

One Billion Rising is in two weeks, with events around the globe and also in the virtual world Second Life. “One Billion Rising is the biggest mass action to end violence against women in human history.  The campaign, launched on Valentine’s Day 2012, began as a call to action based on the staggering statistic that 1 in 3 women on the planet will be beaten or raped during her lifetime. With the world population at 7 billion, this adds up to more than ONE BILLION WOMEN AND GIRLS.  On 14 February 2013, people across the world came together to express their outrage, strike, dance, and RISE in defiance of the injustices women suffer, demanding an end at last to violence against women.  Last year, on 14 February 2014, One Billion Rising for Justice focused on the issue of justice for all survivors of gender violence, and highlighted the impunity that lives at the intersection of poverty, racism, war, the plunder of the environment, capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy. Events took place in 200 countries, where women, men, and youth came together to Rise, Release, and Dance outside of court houses, police stations, government offices, school administration buildings, work places, sites of environmental injustice, military courts, embassies, places of worship, homes, or simply public gathering places where women deserve to feel safe but too often do not.”

logo 2015 flickr

This morning I went to OBR volunteer training in SL and learned that we could use more support.  Do you have a little time on Valentine’s Day? The event runs for 24 hours, so there’s plenty of time to volunteer and still celebrate the day. Learn more about OBR in SL, and sign up to help.

Even if you can’t volunteer, don’t miss the events. There will be art, drama, music, drumming, and lots of dancing — and with danceballs, you don’t have to memorize the steps!

I’ve embedded two videos below: one from One Billion Rising in SL 2013, and another longer video that explains OBR in a global context.

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Posted by on January 31, 2015 in Culture, Gender & Sexuality


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Teledildonics, VR movies, holograms… what a roundup!

I’m trying to be more active on Twitter lately because I find fascinating articles daily but don’t have time — or enough insightful thoughts — to write a lot of commentary. You can follow me @AvatarAnthro if you want to keep up with that.  In the meantime, here are some very recent favorites:

  • Finding the future of sex tech at the Adult Entertainment Expo from The Daily Dot.  NSFW, obviously. Teledildonic (yep, it means what you think it means) products have existed for some time, but the latest entrants in the market claim short latency and use sexual stimulation devices on both ends of the connection: a vibrating dildo or egg for a female user and an enhanced silicon-cushioned tube for a male. The article also talks about VR porn, tools for cam models, and one manufacturer who insists that the mainstream doesn’t want their toys to connect to the Internet. I think there’s a larger market than he believes, and it’s growing.
  • At Sundance, a Virtual-Reality Movement Soars from the Wall Street Journal Digits blog. This article is about filmmakers beginning to explore what storytelling can be in an immersive VR experience. They’re learning some things that SL creators could have told them a long ago, like how to allow the viewer to get his bearings first and that aggressively driving a single story line is a waste of the environment. One filmmaker mentions that tech is changing so quickly now that by the time he finishes a project, it looks outdated and hard to watch on new equipment. It’s a risk of rapid change but oh how exciting.
  • What is holographic, and what isn’t? from the blog This is a technical analysis that looks at the hype of various products and “holograms” appearing in the media and defines what is actually holographic based on six depth cues that tell our eyes an object is 3D. I learned some things and it also gave me a better understanding of the different display products currently in development. Especially relevant when the Microsoft HoloLens is the latest focus.
  • Some personal news: Jakob will be out of the hospital in a couple days! He’s been in since November for tests, surgeries, and radiation treatments, but they’re letting him go home. He’s excited to be able to “come home” to our place in Second Life as well, and I can’t wait to have the first full conversation with him in months.

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Public shaming of dating site jerks

This topic made the rounds again lately and I wanted to give it some thought. In this case, I’m writing specifically about women who post screenshots or transcripts of the messages they get from men through dating sites and social media. Forgive the heteronormity but I’m considering a particular dynamic.

It remains the case that men are more likely than women to make initial contact on online dating sites. I’m a bit surprised that this hasn’t changed much since I had a dating profile 10-15 years ago, but norms change when there is impetus for them to change, and perhaps that hasn’t happened yet. My male friends have always grumbled about the lack of responses they get and complained that the risk of the first move is still on their shoulders.

The experience for women on dating sites is completely different than that of men. There is a thin line between not getting any notice and being deluged. Some women toss out flashier bait and get more hits. Others try to be very specific in their profiles, hoping to attract quality over quantity. However, everyone I’ve spoken with has seen her share of “form letter” responses, and many of us have gotten rudeness and hostility as well.  That leads to my topic: women who take those rude and hostile responses and post them online.

If you give a man some level of perceived anonymity and then put him in a situation where he is both evaluating lists of women like products in an online store and risking rejection, you might not see his best side. Maybe he is putting extra armor over vulnerability, maybe he’s truly arrogant or abusive, maybe he reads those idiotic “pickup artist” sites, maybe a cultural difference makes his style seem off-putting to women he approaches. A lot of factors could come into play. In the end, though, there are a lot of awful things sent to women.

Is there a point at which it is fair or ethical to take those terrible responses and post them with possibly identifying details?

When I read them — and I do read them, because they’re fascinating — I experience waves of visceral emotions. I’m astounded, angry, and indignant with the women, but I feel the potential humiliation and anger of the men, too. I’m not sharing any links because I don’t want to be complicit in that.

The behavior of men who are abusive on dating sites is indefensible even if I might speculate about their motivations. It’s wrong. I’m sure it makes women feel better to know that they are not alone in receiving horrible things like insults, threats, manipulation, and unsolicited penis photos. I think I could have wallpapered a room with the number of those I received in my dating years, but ewww, what a room! Perhaps it’s useful to know that PrinceCharming666 has been a creep to others.

Many comments defending the posts have been on the theme of “a man fears that his online date will really be fat; a woman fears that her online date will really be a murderer.” Sure. There are times that men have reason for fear too, but it is predominantly a female reality. Maybe posting abusive responses is a method of protecting oneself by bringing the verbal asshattery out into the open, making it public rather than private.

If someone receives an online threat, I hope she exposes it to everyone she deems appropriate — the site moderators, friends, possibly the police, whomever. I think it’s fair game to post non-threats as long as identifying details are omitted. It’s a reasonable way to say, “This is what we’re receiving and it’s not ok.” But to me, a line is crossed when photos, usernames, or other details that might link back to a unique person are included. Subjecting someone to public humiliation for a private message doesn’t seem acceptable to me. Am I alone in this?

Of course, if insulting, stupid messages weren’t sent, there would be nothing to post. Bottom line?


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Posted by on October 28, 2014 in Culture, Gender & Sexuality, Relationships



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